Seemingly overnight, distance learning has become the hot topic. And managers are under pressure to spend, to save, to digitize, to evolve. The problem: Despite technological advances, it is still difficult to implement an engaging, effective, affordable course in a timely manner. Here's why.
We're all familiar with environments that deliver a course through text-with-clip art documents. For some topics and audiences, they work beautifully. For others, they're boredom clicked one page at a time.
Today's learning environment is far more complicated. You must juggle authoring tools, programming languages, bandwidth, networks, servers, animation, scripts, background graphics, etc. But don't blame the technology when the course gets stuck; the likely problem is the content.
Is Good Content Enough? In the classroom, many factors can compensate for a less than interesting delivery or unimaginative graphics. Not so with distance learning. Great content is not enough. To be effective, how you say something is as important as what you say.
What Content is Right? Today's learning environments demand that course content is both effective and engaging. Think of the online course as the curriculum and trainer combined. In the classroom, if trainees have questions about the material, they don't leave the room; they ask the trainer. With distance learning, the instructor cannot clear up confusion or offer an anecdote to make a point. Online, if trainees are confused, they are often isolated from the answer. When frustrated, they can leave the course with simply a click of the mouse, possibly never to return.
And Why is Content that Was Right Likely to Be Wrong? Even courses that have been successful in the classroom must be rethought and restructured. For example, reading more than a sentence or two is awkward and distracting on the monitor. Retention diminishes with each additional sentence.
If case studies are integral to a sales workshop, the entire activity and lessons must be redesigned into a short, completely interactive medium, like a drag-and-drop exercise. My experience with clients shows that this transformation can be made effectively, but it takes considerable thought, knowledge of the content, and an understanding of the appropriate tools.
How Shouldn't You Present It? Keeping the trainee's attention amid the constant temptations and distractions of the office is far more difficult online than in person. Therefore, not only must the content be restructured, its presentation must be rethought. It is not enough to automate your trainer's presentation. Slides and speech are intolerable for any length of time on a screen. Consider "Sesame Street." The show teaches the alphabet not by simply showing letters on the screen with a voiceover--it presents a variety of kid-friendly personalities, animation, color, and images.
Although adults may have longer attention spans, the same principle holds true. Effective teaching on the screen requires audience-appropriate images, movement, and color. Serious courses will not benefit from cutsie graphics. Light topics will suffer from a serious voiceover.
What To Do? It would be great if there were a short to do list to help managers make these decisions, but there is not. However, I can offer you this: successful online learning programs consider questions about content and presentation first. Without engaging material that is rethought and designed for online students, your investment of time, money, and effort won't show a high return. It might even turn out to be an embarrassment. That's an online learning problem nobody should have.